Every summer a roll call of the world’s rich and famous are photographed on an array of super-yachts on Sardinia’s north eastern Emerald Coast. The impression being that Sardinia is only a haunt for the VIPs who grace our newspapers and magazine covers. However, whilst north-eastern Sardinia may carry this tag, north western Sardinia, equally as beautiful in a more rugged unspoilt way with its diverse coastline, beautiful beaches, hidden coves and historic towns offers the traveller an affordable alternative.
The graffiti tells you all you need to know about Sardinia, ‘Sardegna no est Italia!’ Visitors shouldn’t underestimate how distinct Sardinia is from mainland Italy. With a language and flag of its own and a strong Spanish influence, Sardinia may be part of Italy, but prides itself on its independent spirit.
Unlike the rest of Sardinia, or Italy even, a proportion of the north western tip of Sardinia speak Catalan and Sard as their first languages, however conversations are interspersed with Italian making it hard to follow even if you can understand any of the languages. But visitors need not worry as most people in the holiday resorts speak passable English and delight in helping when you attempt shaky Italian. (The local Italian dialect meant that words we had successfully used on the mainland were laughed at or totally misunderstood by the Sards making for much hilarity on occasion).
The historically steeped main town of Alghero is particularly proud of its Catalan heritage. The Catalan influence originates from Pedro IV of Aragon who took control of the town in the mid-fourteenth century and embarked on an intense period of colonization from Spain. Throughout Alghero the distinctive red and orange Catalan flag is flown proudly alongside the rather ominous Sardinian flag depicting 4 headless pirates. Ask any local and you will receive an array of tales regarding the provenance of and the misfortunes which befell these unfortunate men! Having spent 9 months living there, I left none the wiser to the origins of this particular piece of Sardinian history.
Alghero is not an artificially created holiday resort and this really is its charm. It is a town with a long, proud history whose architecture reflects its many occupations, which for the summer months at least welcomes visitors to its beautiful beaches, seafood restaurants and many coral shops for which the town is famous.
Surrounded by water on three sides, the “old city” of Alghero is the centre of its traditions and customs. The Spanish influence is very evident but the town also exudes its own unique charm. The bustling narrow cobbled streets are alive with street cafes, ice cream parlors and pizzerias whilst old men play cards in the shadow of buildings. Tourists are able to take a horse and carriage ride from the marina through the old narrow cobbled streets, a nice way to get your bearings of the otherwise confusing labyrinth of streets.
The dome of San Michele church and the pointed Aragonese tower of the church of San Francesco dominate the old town and the painted ceilings and artwork are exquisite inside.
Alghero combines its growing role of tourist city with that of a thriving marina. The many cafes and bars sitting alongside the harbour front give ideal boat spotting opportunities. The promenade alongside the marina also plays host to a daily market. There is an eclectic mix of jewellery, wooden carvings, unique artwork and handmade bags. The stall holders come from far and wide with many travelling over from mainland Italy and the African country of Senegal for the summer months. The jewellery on these stalls is therefore a mixture of traditional Italian and bright multi coloured African bangles, earrings and rings. The wooden carvings are beautiful but may prove to be a little too heavy to take home.
Like many holiday resorts, the town shuts down in late September but is bustling from mid-May onwards. During the peak season, the beach closest to the old town is heaving with tourists but follow the locals to the far end, closer to the neighboring town of Fertilia, and you will find the beach is equally as beautiful and tends to be a lot less crowded. Whilst Fertilia itself does not warrant a visit, the town was built by the Fascist government of Italy in the 1930s and the buildings are utilitarian and stark, the walk from Alghero to Fertilia along the beach is worth the effort as it affords wonderful views across the bay to Alghero and many photo opportunities especially as the sun goes down. The starkness of Fertilia is in complete contrast to the winding cobbled streets of Alghero, however the locals are as friendly and the one coffee shop / bar does a great panini and coffee at the end of the walk.
Out of the town, holiday makers seeking day trips are spoilt for choice along the rugged coastal road to the Capo Caccia peninsular cave complex of Grotta di Nettuno (Neptune’s Grotto) in the north-east and a trip south along the Oristano coastline leads to the peaceful medieval town of Bosa.
Capo Caccia, (24 kilometers from Alghero) is a breathtaking headland with panoramic views and picture postcard photo opportunities. From here you can descend the 654 steps of the famous Escala del Cabirol, or Goat’s Stairway, to the stunning lake deep inside the cavern known as Neptune’s Grotto. The steps are not for the unfit or fainthearted, but the caves are also accessible by tour boats from Alghero. Neptune’s Grotto is filled with sympathetically lit stalactites and stalagmites that can be viewed from walkways carved out of the stone.
At the extreme north western tip of Sardinia is the small resort town of Stintino and the beach at La Pelosa. With its white sand and warm shallow turquoise waters that stretch across the short strait to the Island of Piana, La Pelosa ranks as one of the most popular beaches in Sardinia.
To the South of Alghero, situated on the banks of the River Temo, lies the relaxing town of Bosa. The town has avoided mass tourism due to its secluded position ringed by mountains and sea and tourists are therefore afforded the luxury of visiting a Sardinian town unspoilt by the need to attract visitors. The castle overlooking the town provides wonderful views of Bosa and its marina and is definitely worth a visit but be sure to check the opening times as the castle sits at the end of a long walk up a very steep hill and closes for 3 hours over an extended lunch period.
The beautiful beaches, coastal roads, historic towns and beautiful countryside make this an exciting region to explore and the many reasonably priced fish and Italian restaurants make eating out a pleasure, but travellers should note that with the exception of one Chinese and one Indian restaurant, foreign cuisine is not popular in Alghero. The old town offers a variety of high end fish restaurants nestled alongside pizzerias offering take away pizza by the slice. For alfresco dining at its best, head to the old town wall to find an array of restaurants offering tables for two and an intimate dining experience. For fresh fish, authentic Italian pizzas, Sardinian specials and a friendly welcome from owner Alessandro, ‘Aragon’ offers a great night out. Its situation one street removed from the waterfront ensures that it is a local’s restaurant without the rush of tourists; it appears to effortlessly cater for parties of all sizes, with groups of 20 easily accommodated alongside tables for two. The locally brewed ‘ichnusa’ beer, served island wide is a pleasant and refreshing alternative to the often gassy beers found on the continent, and no meal is complete without the obligatory liquor Mirto often provided free of charge at the end of a meal; it is a required taste!
Flights to Alghero from many UK airports have made the north western side of Sardinia an affordable alternative to the exclusive Emerald Coast; base yourself in Alghero, hire a car or bike from the promenade and explore. The cheerful locals, beautiful scenery and warm climate will not disappoint.